When we think of Jamaica a few things stand out: Reggae music, ganja, long sandy beaches, that inviting Jamaican dialect, and Jerk. Jerk cooking is as Jamaican is it gets: fragrant with chiles and spice, sweet with biting heat. It’s delicious and has been rooted in Caribbean culture for hundreds of years.
What is Jerk?
Jerk is a Jamaican method of cooking meat and fish using a blend of tropical spices, fragrant with pimento (allspice), scotch bonnet chiles and other spices. Traditionally Jamaican Jerk was developed for pork, wild boar, in fact, that once roamed the Island. Today, jerked chicken is as common as pork and seafood or grilled vegetables are also cooked and seasoned jerk style.
The word jerk is believed to have originated with the Spanish term charqui, meaning dried meat (think jerky). It is likely they were referring to the action of jerking or poking the meat to create holes for the spices to fill into.
A Brief History of Jerk
Jerk is considered a national treasure in Jamaica. Its origins can be traced to the native Arawak Indians that flavoured pork with allspice and smoking. As pirates arrived with other ingredients, salt, hot chiles and other spices were added to the mix. Escaped slaves, called Maroons, brought skills of slow roasting in pits. This has led to the evolution of jerk as it is today where the cooking is often done in half-cut steel drums, converted into grills, now commonly known as Jerk Pits.
Recipes have been handed down for generations. Recipes and techniques are guarded secrets, with a spirit of pride and competition running among the Jerk cooks of Jamaica
Preparing Jerk at Home
Jerk is a complex blend of seasonings that includes scallions, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, salt, thyme, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper and many other spices. Sometimes a dry seasoning mix is rubbed into the meat and sometimes the meat is left to soak overnight in a wet marinade. The meat is basted with the seasonings as it grills slowly over a smoky wood fire.
Be careful not to let the spices cook your meat. When using strong spices fish and shrimp can quickly turn rubbery. We suggest brushing fish or shrimp with oil so the spices will readily adhere to the surface. Oil is also helpful with vegetables. If you are doing shrimp on wooden skewers be sure to soak the skewers in water for about 20 minutes before putting them on the grill so that they don’t catch fire.
If you are grilling fish, best use thicker and denser varieties like cod and watch the temperature. The spices can easily burn your masterpiece.
For larger items like chicken or pork, a dry rub is the way to go. Wet rubs can leave your dish with an odd and unwelcome texture.
Think mangoes! A mango salsa is a perfect foil to the heat of a good jerk. They are refreshing and spicy enough on their own to compliment all of these fantastic Caribbean flavours.
Where to Buy
From the Epicentre, of course. We offer an authentic Jamaican blend of tropical spices, fragrant with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and lime with a habanero kick. Equally good as a rub or marinade. It’s especially good with chicken or pork but can also add intense flavour to fish and is superb when dusted on shrimp.
Photo by Microdac at English Wikipedia / Public domain